Chester Himes’ Wild Ride

The Harlem Cycle, Chester Himes

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Chester Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 and began writing during an excessive prison sentence for armed robbery in 1928 and hit his stride in the mid-fifties as a giant of hard-boiled detective fiction with a series of books now called The Harlem Cycle. And if he had written any of the nine novels in the cycle today they’d still be revolutionary.

The books of the Harlem Cycle, starting with A Rage In Harlem, are classic examples of the genre – there are hard-bitten characters in extreme circumstances, vain and bloody murder and reluctant witnesses, twisted and arbitrary morality, vested interests corrupting the unfolding of justice and above all there’s Himes’ particular take on the poetry of pulp fiction. The effusive metaphor is a staple of the genre and the evocative analogies drawn by Himes are so rich they elevate the very concept:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

                A Rage In Harlem, 1957

It’s pretty much all like that and that should be all the recommendation anyone needs to read at least A Rage In Harlem. But it’s not the main way in which The Harlem Cycle goes from thoroughly satisfying and entertaining to genuinely great. The main way is pacing and anyone who picks up the first book in the series will know exactly what that means as they’re nearing the end of the last and wondering where the time went.

The events of the series follow one another with subplots often overlapping from one book to the next and they occur in real time. In fact they occasionally occur faster than real time as time folds into itself in a manner that would be awkward and oblique handled any less deftly but in The Harlem Cycle the trick either dazzles with its simplicity or passes unnoticed altogether.

Among other consequences of this unique pacing, such as a feral drive to know what’s on the next page, is the slightly surreal sensation that this is all actually happening – as though Himes has squealed up next to you on the street and given you a single second to jump on the running board before tearing off into the night pursued by sirens and mobs and gunfire and something intangible and foreboding. Hence the story structure is unorthodox and unpredictable and you’re not quite sure if the homicidal detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are on your side or the side of the law or even how long they’ll last as main characters.

Doubtless when these books were first published they were revolutionary for other reasons related to Himes’ race and background and of course they still bear this legacy with pride and poise, but they’ve nevertheless emerged from that dark era of American history as sui generis classics.

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